The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz - We Are The Mighty
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The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Nazi troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, despite the best efforts of Captain Witold Pilecki and his fellow Polish soldiers. On November 9th of that same year, Witold and Major Wlodarkiewicz founded the Tajna Armia Polska (TAP or Polish Secret Army), an underground organization that eventually became consolidated with other resistance forces into The Home Army.


Not long after the formation of organized widespread Polish Resistance, its members began hearing reports of the conditions within the newly constructed Auschwitz Concentration Camp put into operation in the Spring of 1940. Those first reports originated with prisoners released from the camp and from civilians such as railroad employees and local residents.

In order to cut through the very troubling rumors and figure out exactly what was going on there, Pilecki came up with a bold plan- become a prisoner at Auschwitz. With a little convincing, his superiors eventually agreed to allow him to go.

In order to help protect his wife and children after he was captured, he took on the alias Tomasz Serafinski, much to the chagrin of the real Tomasz Serafinski who was thought to be dead at the time (hence why his papers and identity were chosen), but was not. Later, the real Tomasz had some trouble because of Pilecki using his papers and name (more on this in the Bonus Facts below).

According to Eleonora Ostrowska, owner of an apartment Pilecki was at when he was taken, when a Nazi roundup began (lapanka, where a city block would suddenly be closed off and most of the civilians inside would be rounded up and sent to slave labor camps and sometimes even just mass-executed on the spot), a member of the resistance came to help Pilecki hide. Instead, Ostrowska said “Witold rejected those opportunities and didn’t even try to hide in my flat.” She reported that soon, a German soldier knocked at the door and Pilecki whispered to her “Report that I have fulfilled the order,” and then opened the door and was taken by the soldier along with about 2,000 other Poles in Warsaw on September 19, 1940.

It is important to note here that he didn’t really know if he’d be sent to Auschwitz at this point. As Dr. Daniel Paliwoda noted of Pilecki’s capture, “Since the AB Aktion and roundups were still going on, the Nazis could have tortured and executed him in

occupied Warsaw’s Pawiak, Mokotów, or any other Gestapo-run prison. They could have taken him to Palmiry to murder him in the forest. At the very least, they could have sent him to a forced labor colony somewhere in Germany.”

While he was willingly surrendering with the hope of being sent to Auschwitz, Pilecki lamented the behavior of his fellow countrymen during the roundup. “What really annoyed me the most was the passivity of this group of Poles. All those picked up were already showing signs of crowd psychology, the result being that our whole crowd behaved like a herd of passive sheep. A simple thought kept nagging me: stir up everyone and get this mass of people moving.”

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: Wikicommons

As he had hoped (perhaps the only person to ever hope such a thing), he was sent to Auschwitz. He later described his experience upon arrival:

We gave everything away into bags, to which respective numbers were tied. Here our hair of head and body were cut off, and we were slightly sprinkled by cold water. I got a blow in my jaw with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began. From that moment we became mere numbers – I wore the number 4859…

We were struck over the head not only by SS rifle butts, but by something far greater. Our concepts of law and order and of what was normal, all those ideas to which we had become accustomed on this Earth, were given a brutal kicking.

Pilecki also noted that one of the first indications that he observed that Auschwitz was not just a normal prison camp was the lack of food given to prisoners; in his estimate, the rations given to prisoners were “calculated in such a way that people would live for six weeks.” He also noted that a guard at the camp told him, “Whoever will live longer — it means he steals.”

Assessing the conditions inside Auschwitz was only part of Pilecki’s mission. He also took on responsibility for organizing a resistance force within the camp, the Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej (ZOW). The goals of ZOW included- improving inmate morale, distributing any extra food and clothing, setting up an intelligence network within the camp, training prisoners to eventually rise up against their guards and liberate Auschwitz, and getting news in and out of Auschwitz. Ensuring secrecy of the ZOW led Pilecki to create cells within the organization. He trusted the leaders of each cell to withstand interrogation by the guards, but even so each leader only knew the names of the handful of people under his command. This limited the risk to the entire organization should an informant tip off a guard or if a member was caught.

Pilecki’s first reports to the Polish government and Allied forces left the camp with released prisoners. But when releases became less common, passing reports on to the outside world depended largely on the success of prisoner escapes, such as one that occurred on June 20, 1942 where four Poles managed to dress up as members of the SS, weapons and all, and steal an SS car which they boldly drove out of the main gate of the camp.

A cobbled-together radio, built over the course of seven months as parts could be acquired, was used for a while in 1942 to transmit reports until “one of our fellow’s big mouth” resulted in the Nazis learning of the radio, forcing the group to dismantle it before they were caught red handed and executed.

Pilecki’s reports were the first to mention the use of Zyklon B gas, a poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas, and gas chambers used at the camp. He saw the first use of Zyklon B gas in early September 1941 when the Nazis used it to kill 850 Soviet POWs and Poles in Block 11 of Auschwitz I. He also learned of the gas chambers at Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, from other resistance members after construction of the camp began in October 1941. ZOW also managed to keep a pretty good running log of roughly the number of inmates being brought in to the camp and the estimated number of deaths, noting at one point, “Over a thousand a day from the new transports were gassed. The corpses were burnt in the new crematoria.”

All of the reports were sent to the Polish Government in Exile in London, and they in turn forwarded the information to other Allied forces. However, on the whole, the Allies thought the reports of mass killings, starvation, brutal and systemic torture, gas chambers, medical experimentation, etc. were wildly exaggerated and questioned the reliability of Pilecki’s reports. (Note: During Pilecki’s nearly three years there, several hundred thousand people were killed at Auschwitz and, beyond the death and horrific tortures, countless others were experimented on in a variety of ways by such individuals as the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele. All total, it is estimated that somewhere between 1 to 1.5 million people were killed at the camp.)

Significant doubt surrounding the accuracy of his reports meant Pilecki’s plan to bring about an uprising inside Auschwitz never came to fruition. Pilecki had managed to convince his network of resistance fighters inside the camp that they could successfully take control for a short while and escape if the Allies and Polish Underground provided support. He had envisioned airdrops of weapons and possibly even Allied soldiers invading the camp. However, the Allies never had any intention of such an operation and the local Polish resistance in Warsaw refused to attack due to the large number of German troops stationed nearby.

The Nazi guards began systematically eliminating members of the ZOW resistance in 1943 and so, with his reports being ignored, Pilecki decided he needed to plead his case in person for intervention in Auschwitz.

In April of 1943, he got his chance. After handing over leadership of ZOW to his top deputies, he and two others were assigned the night shift at a bakery which was located outside the camp’s perimeter fence. At an opportune moment on the night of the 26th, they managed to overpower a guard and cut the phone lines. The three men then made a run for it out of the back of the bakery. As they ran, Pilecki stated, “Shots were fired behind us. How fast we were running, it is hard to describe. We were tearing the air into rags by quick movements of our hands.”

It should be noted that anyone caught helping an Auschwitz escapee would be killed along with the escaped prisoner, something the local populace knew well. Further, the 40 square kilometers around Auschwitz were extremely heavily patrolled and the escapees’ shaved heads, tattered clothes, and gaunt appearance would give them away in a second to anyone who saw them. Despite this, all three not only survived the initial escape, but managed to get to safety without being recaptured.

Unfortunately, Pilecki’s plan to garner support for liberating Auschwitz never materialized. After arriving at the headquarters of the Home Army on August 25, 1943 and desperately pleading his case for the Home Army to put all efforts into liberating Auschwitz, he left feeling “bitter and disappointed” when the idea was discarded as being too risky. In his final report on Auschwitz, he further vented his frustration on his superiors “cowardliness.”

After this, Pilecki continued to fight for the Home Army, as well as trying to aid ZOW in any way he could from the outside. He also played a role in the Warsaw Uprising that began in August of 1944, during which he was captured by German troops in October of that year and spent the rest of World War II as a POW.

Pilecki wrote his final version of his report on Auschwitz (later published in a book titled:The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery) after the war while spending time in Italy under the 2nd Polish Corps before being ordered back to Poland by General Wladyslaw Anders to gather intelligence on communist activities in Poland. You see, the invading Germans had been replaced by another occupying power- the Soviet backed Polish Committee of National Liberation. This was a puppet provisional government setup on July 22, 1944 in opposition to the Polish Government in Exile, the latter of which was supported by the majority of Polish people and the West.

During his two years at this post, he managed to, among many other things, gather documented proof that the voting results of the People’s Referendum of 1946 were heavily falsified by the communists. Unfortunately, there was little the Polish Government in Exile could do. Even when his cover was blown in July of 1946, Pilecki soldiered on and refused to leave the country, continuing his work collecting documented evidence of the many atrocities against the Polish people being committed by the Soviets and their puppet government in Poland.

For this, he was ultimately arrested on May 7, 1947 by the Ministry of Public Security. He was extensively tortured for many months after, including having his fingernails ripped off and ribs and nose broken. He later told his wife of his life in this particular prison, “Oświęcim [Auschwitz] compared with them was just a trifle.”

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Witold Pilecki during his trial in 1948. Photo: Wikicommons

Finally, he was given a show trial. When fellow survivors of Auschwitz pled with then Prime Minister of Poland, Józef Cyrankiewicz (himself a survivor of Auschwitz and member of a resistance in the prison), for the release of Pilecki, instead he went the other way and wrote to the judge, telling him to throw out record of Pilecki’s time as a prisoner in Auschwitz. This was a key piece of evidence in Pilecki’s favor given one of the things he was being accused of was being a German collaborator during the war.

And so it was that as part of a crackdown by the new Polish government against former members of the Home Army resistance, Pilecki was convicted of being a German collaborator and a spy for the West, among many other charges, ultimately sentenced to death via a gunshot to his head. The sentence was carried out on May 25, 1948 by Sergeant Piotr Smietanski, “The Butcher of Mokotow Prison.” From then on, mention of Pilecki’s name and numerous heroic acts were censored in Poland, something that wasn’t changed until 1989 when the communist Polish government was overthrown.

Witold Pilecki’s last known words were reportedly, “Long live free Poland.”

Bonus Facts:

  • You might think it strange that Pilecki frequently, quite willingly, threw himself into incredibly dangerous situations despite the fact that he had a wife and kids back home. Polish actor Marek Probosz, who studied Pilecki extensively before portraying him in The Death of Captain Pilecki, stated of this, “Human beings were the most precious thing for Pilecki, and especially those who were oppressed. He would do anything to liberate them, to help them.” Mirroring this sentiment, Pilecki’s son, Andrzej later said his father “would write that we should live worthwhile lives, to respect others and nature. He wrote to my sister to watch out for every little ladybug, to not step on it but place it instead on a leaf because everything has been created for a reason. ‘Love nature.’ He instructed us like this in his letters.” It wasn’t just his children he taught to respect life at all levels. Two years after Pilecki was executed, and at a time when his family was struggling because of it, a man approached Pilecki’s teenage son and stated, “I was in prison [as a guard] with your father. I want to help you because your father was a saint.. Under his influence, I changed my life. I do not harm anyone anymore.”
  • As mentioned, the real Tomasz Serafinski was not dead, as Pilecki had thought when he took his papers and assumed Tomasz’ identity to be captured. After Pilecki’s escape from Auschwitz, the real Tomasz was arrested on December 25, 1943 for having escaped from Auschwitz.  He was then investigated for a few weeks, including a fair amount of pretty brutal strong arming, but was finally released on January 14, 1944 when it was determined he was not, in fact, the same individual who had escaped from Auschwitz. Afterwards, Pilecki and Tomasz actually became friends, and though Pilecki was killed, according to Jacek Pawlowicz, “That friendship is alive to this day, because Andrzej Pilecki visits their family and is very welcome there.”
  • In the early 2000s, certain surviving officials who were involved in Pilecki’s trial, including the prosecutor, Czeslaw Lapinski, were put up on charges for being accomplices in the murder of Witold Pilecki.
  • Pilecki also fought in WWI in the then newly formed Polish army. After that, he fought in the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921).
  • At one point while within Auschwitz, Pilecki and his fellow ZOW members managed to cultivate typhus and infect various SS-personnel.
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Raids killed 35 ISIS commanders before Mosul offensive

U.S. airstrikes and special operations raids killed more than 35 ISIS military commanders in the run up to the Mosul offensive, which is proceeding according to plan, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday.


Carter also joined with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in stressing that the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria will be accelerated to encircle and then retake the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of Raqqa in northeastern Syria, in concert with the Mosul offensive.

Also read: Everything ISIS has lost at Mosul . . . so far

Last week, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, made similar remarks on a coordinated campaign against both Mosul and Raqqa. Votel stressed the “simultaneous application of pressure” on Raqqa and Mosul.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
75th Ranger Regiment conducing operations in Iraq, April 2007 | US Army photo

In opening remarks at an anti-ISIS coalition meeting in Paris, Carter said that the U.S. had been steadily targeting the Islamic State leadership in and around Mosul, “including many of the highest in the last 90 days. In fact, you might say the most dangerous job in Iraq right now is to be the military emir of Mosul.”

The efforts focused on “mid-tier leaders, which our special operations forces and our air forces have done remarkably well. We have caused a lot of confusion in the ranks of the defenders in Mosul by targeting a lot of mid-tier leaders there,” Carter said.

The strikes against the leadership “are going to pay off in the coming weeks” in the Mosul offensive as the Iraqi Security Forces press into the city itself, he said.

Carter said he expects to see moves against Raqqa to commence even as the advance on Mosul continues. “We want to see isolation operations begin, oriented at Raqqa, as soon as possible. We’re working with our partners there to do that, and so there will be some simultaneity to these two operations. We’ve long anticipated that.”

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, overall commander of U.S. and allied efforts in Iraq and Syria as commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, was on board with the need to pressure ISIS in both Mosul and Raqqa, Carter said.

“While Mosul may be in the headlines, it’s not the only operation underway,” Carter said. He noted that Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, joined the anti-ISIS coalition meeting in Paris, which also focused on protecting Europe and the U.S. against the ISIS terror threat once Mosul and Raqqa have fallen.

Thomas has been put in charge of preventing ISIS’ “external operations,” Carter said. “That’s another critical issue that we’ll discuss today — our ongoing and intensive efforts to counter ISIL’s external operations,” he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“We are killing the ISIL terrorists who plot and would carry out such operations, impeding their movement across borders, and hindering their ability to use the Internet to spread ISIL’s hateful ideology,” he said.

Carter would not rule out that more U.S. and coalition troops might have to be deployed to the region to prevent an ISIS resurgence. He said that more trainers and advisers would be needed to prepare the Iraqis for a continuing counter-insurgency effort against ISIS and to train more Iraqi police and border control personnel.

Both Carter and Le Drian said that the Mosul operation is generally proceeding according to plan. “And while we know it will continue to be a tough fight — indeed, we’ll probably see more resistance as the fight goes on, and almost certainly as our partners approach the core of the city — I’m confident the Iraqi Security Forces will succeed,” Carter said.

On the outskirts of Mosul on Tuesday, Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service units advanced to within two miles of the eastern city limits after pushing through the Christian town of Bartella and paused to allow other forces to move into place, Reuters reported.

At the Pentagon on Monday, U.S. military officials said that the advancing force consisted of about 20,000 Iraqi Security Forces and about 15,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. ISIS is estimated to have 3,000 to 5,000 fighters to defend the city where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the creation of a “caliphate” in June 2014.

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Bagram Airfield is the “Number 1 thing to do” according to TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor is a great place to get travel tips from fellow adventurers. It can tell you what cafes are best in Paris or which museums are best in Germany. And, it can apparently tell you which bases are best in Afghanistan.


Some hilarious person decided to add “Bagram Airfield” to TripAdvisor’s list of “Things to do in Afghanistan,” and vets have been filling it with unfiltered and often sarcastic opinions about what life on the base is like. It’s currently ranked as the “#1 of 1 things to do in Bagram, Afghanistan, Asia.” Read the 4 selected reviews below to learn why:

1. BAF4DAYZ nailed the Afghanistan experience with just the headline of his review:

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Screengrab: TripAdvisor’s Bagram Airfield reviews

2. Other reviewers gave a nod to the locals who make all visits to Bagram so memorable:

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Screengrab: TripAdvisor’s Bagram Airfield reviews

3. People gave five-stars to the communal living areas and fine dining options:

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Screengrab: TripAdvisor’s Bagram Airfield reviews

4. Other amenities, like the free gyms and the opportunities to create memories, received four stars.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Screengrab: TripAdvisor’s Bagram Airfield reviews

For some odd reason, the beloved airfield sports a travel alert about safety and security concerns in the area. (Not sure what that’s about.) Read more reviews at the TripAdvisor webpage. Vets that have visited the facility can also leave their own two cents in the form of a new review.

When you go to the page, be sure to answer TripAdvisor’s questions about Bagram Airfield such as, “Do you find this attraction suitable for young children?”

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
GIF: WATM Logan Nye

Sure, TripAdvisor; great place for kids.

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Today in military history: First man on the moon

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong — a U.S. Navy Aviator and Korean war veteran —  became the first man to walk on the moon. 

The Apollo program was created when America was trailing behind the Soviets during the space race of the cold war. NASA worked furiously — and with a budget of 24 billion dollars, which is about 100 billion dollars today — to beat the Soviets to the moon.

On July 16, Apollo 11 took off from Kennedy Space Center for the moon, with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr, and Michael Collins on board.

Four days — and 240,000 miles — later, Armstrong was the first to exit the lunar module “Eagle” onto the moon’s powdery surface, where he famously said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin joined moments later, and the two did what anyone would do: run some scientific tests, take some pics, and call the president. 

Seven days later, they returned to a country of adoring fans, astonished that these brave astronauts accomplished a feat few thought possible. They filled out all of their paperwork, which included customs documents accounting for the harvested moon rocks and travel vouchers — because, technically, they were listed as troops on TDY.

When Col. Buzz Aldrin got his travel voucher back, he was approved for $33.31 for his time spent and distance traveled. Yep. A whole thirty-three bucks for going to the moon. Accounting for inflation, that’s all of about $244.33 today. 

But no amount of money could compare to the glory of being the first human beings on the moon. 

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins left behind their timeless footprints, an American flag, and a plaque that read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.”

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The Marines arrive in Norway

For the first time since World War II, United States Marines have arrived in Norway. Their mission: to deter Russian aggression.


According to a report by the Daily Caller, the deployment has freaked out the Russians, even though the Marines are deploying to a base 900 miles from the Russian border. The deployment is slated to last a year, but the Marines will cycle out after six months.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
A U.S. Marine drifts a tank on ice during training in Norway. (Photo: YouTube/Marines)

“For the first four weeks they will have basic winter training, learn how to cope with skis and to survive in the Arctic environment,” Norwegian Home Guard spokesman Rune Haarstad told the British news agency Reuters. “It has nothing to do with Russia or the current situation.”

The Daily Caller also noted that the deployed Marines will participate in the Joint Viking military exercises with Norwegian and British forces. During the Cold War, the United States had plans to reinforce Norway in the event of a war with Russia. According to a NATO Order of Battle, the forces that would have been sent from the United States included the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, New York, and a Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
A U.S. Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter kicks up snow at Vaernes, Norway, Feb. 22, 2016, as 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade prepares for Exercise Cold Response. All aircraft with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (-) Reinforced, the Air Combat Element of 2d MEB, were dismantled at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., and flown to Norway in U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxies to provide air support during the exercise. Cold Response 16 is a combined, joint exercise comprised of 12 NATO allies and partnered nations and approximately 16,000 troops. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Dalton A. Precht)

As noted by WATM this past November, Marine Expeditionary Brigade is centered around a reinforced regiment on the ground side (three battalions of infantry, an artillery battalion, an AAV company, a LAV company, and a tank company). The air component includes two squadrons of AV-8B Harriers, three squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets, a squadron of EA-6B Prowlers, and seven squadrons of helicopters.

British forces, centered around 3 Commando Brigade of the Royal Marines, were also slated to reinforce Norway during the Cold War. At the present, according to the Royal Marines’ web site, it is centered around three commando battalions, along with support elements, including artillery and logistics units.

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This was the most powerful explosion ever . . . by a lot

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Model of the Tsar Bomba in the Sarov atomic bomb museum. Photo by Croquant


Russia’s Tsar Bomba is the single most physically powerful man-made explosion in human history. And it will probably remain that way forever.

On October 30, 1961, at 11:32 Moscow time, the 50 megaton behemoth detonated over the Mityushikha Bay nuclear testing range above the Arctic Circle. By comparison, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the U.S. was the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb over Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954, which yielded the same energy as 15 megatons of TNT. The blast produced by the Tsar Bomba is the equivalent to about 1,350 – 1,570 times the combined energy of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to John D. Bankston in his book “Invisible Enemies of Atomic Veterans and How They Were Betrayed.”

Or as the Discovery Channel video below puts it, “It contained the equivalent of 58 million tons of TNT or all the explosives used in World War II, multiplied by ten.”

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
A Russian Tu-95 Bear ‘H’ photographed from a RAF Typhoon Quick Reaction Alert aircraft (QRA) with 6 Squadron from RAF Leuchars in Scotland. Photo by Ministry of Defense

The explosion was so powerful that the modified Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber—Russia’s version of the B-52—was almost knocked out of the sky. The mushroom cloud it produced was about 40 miles high, over seven times the height of Mount Everest.

The bomb destroyed all the buildings in a village 34 miles away from ground zero and broke windows in Norway and Finland. The explosion’s heat caused third-degree burns on people 62 miles away. One test participant saw the flash through his dark goggles and felt the bomb’s pulse 170 miles away. The bomb’s shock wave was observed 430 miles from the ground zero, and its seismic activity was measurable even on its third passage around the Earth.

This Discovery Channel video shows rare footage of the Tsar Bomba’s detonation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMYYEsKvHvk

serasvictorias, YouTube

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This declassified US intelligence report from 1990 is one of the most terrifying things you’ll ever read

The 1983 US-Soviet “war scare” is one of the most controversial episodes of the Cold War.


Now we finally know it was also one of the most dangerous, thanks to a February 1990 reportpublished by the National Security Archive at George Washington University this week after a 12-year Freedom of Information Act battle.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The US and Soviets were dangerously close to going to war in November 1983, the bombshell report found, and the Cold War-era US national-security apparatus missed many warning signs.

That 1983 “war scare” was spurred by a large-scale US military exercise in Eastern Europe called Able Archer that the Soviets apparently believed was part of allied preparation for a real war.

The Soviet military mobilized in response.

US-Soviet relations had definitely plunged in the early 1980s, but since then experts have debated how close the US and Soviets had come to the abyss during Able Archer.

Had the Soviets really believed Able Archer was preparation for a preemptive strike? Was the intensifying rhetoric of high-ranking Soviet leaders in the run-up to Able Archer meant for domestic consumption, or was it a reflection of actual fears? Was the 1983 Soviet military mobilization intended as internal and external political messaging, or as sincere preparation for war?

Most important, would the Soviets ever have struck first — and were their conditions for a first strike close to being satisfied during Able Archer?

We now have some of the answers.

On October 24, the National Security Archive published the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board report on the war scare. The 1990 study is the US intelligence apparatus’ final word on just how close the world came to war in 1983, and how aware American decision-makers were of the state of play.

Its conclusions are chilling, even 32 years later.

It turns out the Soviets believed the US wanted to launch a nuclear first strike. The US fell victim to the inverse error and didn’t think the Soviets were serious about preparing for war, partly because they didn’t think the Soviets thought the US wanted to launch a nuclear first strike. As a result, US military and intelligence decision-makers didn’t believe that anything out of the ordinary was happening during Able Archer.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. Following are the main findings in the report.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet leadership and intelligence agencies thought the US was planning to fight and win a nuclear war. In the early 1980s, in response to a US nuclear-modernization drive, “Soviet analysts calculated that the US intended [new generations of ballistic missiles] as a means for developing a first-strike force.” The Soviets may also have “calculated that NATO’s decision to field 600 Pershing IIs and cruise missiles was not to counter their SS-20 [intermediate-range missile] force, but yet another step towards a first-strike capability.”

The report documents how this fear of an American first-strike morphed into a kind of corrosive conventional wisdom. In 1981, the KGB formally sent out instructions to monitor possible NATO war preparations, noting that it is “of special importance to discover the adversaries’ concrete plans and measures linked with his preparation for a surprise nuclear-missile attack on the USSR and other Soviet countries.”

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: flickr/mightyohm

The report flatly states that “KGB bosses seemed already convinced that US war plans were real.”

“KGB officers in [Moscow] agreed that the United States might initiate a nuclear strike if it achieved a level of overall strength markedly greater than that of the Soviet Union. And many agreed that events were leading in that direction,” the report added.

In reality, the US was never contemplating a first-strike. One of the more worrying aspects for the Able Archer incident, in the report’s view, is that “Soviet leaders, despite our open society, might be capable of a fundamental misunderstanding of US strategic motives.”

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: Department of Defense

The Soviets realized they were becoming weaker and thought they’d probably lose the nuclear war they believed the US might be planning. Once the Soviets started thinking in terms of a possible nuclear war, they began to realize they didn’t stand much of a chance of winning it.

As the report states, “There was common concern that the Soviet domestic situation, as well as Moscow’s hold on Eastern Europe, was deteriorating, further weakening Soviet capacity to compete strategically with the US.”

Moscow was in a seemingly weak position for a number of reasons, including an economic slowdown, political unrest in Soviet-dominated Poland, the deployment of the Pershings to Eastern Europe, and the diplomatic fallout from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Intriguingly, the report describes a Soviet computer system that analyzed thousands of strategic variables to determine the Soviet Union’s strength relative to the US. The Soviet leadership would reportedly consider a preemptive nuclear strike if the computer ever found that Soviet power had fallen to 40% or below of US power. It reached 45% at points during the run-up to Able Archer.

The Soviets also determined that growing US missile strength would decimate the Soviet nuclear capabilities in a first strike to the point that a second strike would soon become ineffectual or even impossible. As this chart from the report demonstrates, the adversaries’ nuclear strike capabilities were drifting ever further apart:

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: National Security Archive

 

The Soviets responded by moving to cut the launch preparation time of second strike nuclear platforms like submarines and battleships from several hours to just 20 or 30 minutes. After a point, second-strike nuclear missions became the primary focus of Soviet bomber-crew training, according to the report. In the conventional realm, the Soviets began calling up reservists, sending Spetsnaz paramilitaries to the Eastern European front line, deploying nuclear-capable artillery pieces in Eastern Europe, and even converting tractor factories for tank production.

In the psychological realm, Soviet leaders grew paranoid, realizing the balance of power that had defined their country’s entire strategic outlook would soon be a thing of the past.

It was in this context that the US’s Able Archer exercise began in November 1983.

There were some odd things about Able Archer, and the Soviets’ response to it.The Soviets’ concern about Able Archer is understandable, at least in the context of their lager paranoia. Able Archer included the airlift of tens of thousands of US troops to Central European front-line areas. The operation had a notable nuclear component to it as well.

“We are told that some US aircraft practiced the nuclear warhead handling procedures, including taxiing out of hangars carrying realistic-looking dummy warheads,” the report states.

The Soviets responded as if war was imminent. As the National Security Archive summary of the document puts it, “Warsaw Pact military reactions to Able Archer 83 were … ‘unparalleled in scale’ and included ‘transporting nuclear weapons from storage sites to delivery units by helicopter,’ suspension of all flight operations except intelligence collection flights from 4 to 10 November, ‘probably to have available as many aircraft as possible for combat.'”

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: US Archives

In the US, everybody missed everything. The Soviets were serious about preparing for a possible impending nuclear war, and the US didn’t even know it.

Soviet activities around the “war scare” didn’t make a single presidential daily briefing. The US military realized the Soviets were at a higher state of alert but didn’t change their defense posture in response. Two later intelligence community reports on the incident also misinterpreted Soviet actions.

Indeed, one of the heroes of the war scare is Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, the US Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence in Europe during Able Archer. Perroots did nothing to change the US military’s alert status or readiness even as the Soviets were acting on a deep-seated fear of a possible US first strike. This, of course, was because Perroots wasn’t receiving any intelligence suggesting this fear was underlying Soviet mobilizations. The US had missed just about every clue.

The report calls Perroots’ inertia “fortuitous, if ill-informed.” Had the US military changed its operating procedure in Eastern Europe, it would only have escalated tensions and enhanced the chances of an accidental war.

The phrase “fortuitous, if ill-informed” sums up the entire 1983 war scare. The two sides misunderstood the other’s intentions, actions — indeed, their entire worldview — so badly that war nearly broke out.

The superpowers created a situation where simply doing nothing was an unwitting and perhaps civilization-rescuing act of courage.

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10 responses vets can use when asked, ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’

Over the years, I’ve had my nerves scraped raw by Americans who flippantly ask the question, “Have you ever killed anyone?” The fact that those who ask completely fail to understand or truly care about the veteran experience has calloused my soul just enough to optimize the efficacy of humor as a deflection device and coping mechanism. Let my pain be your lesson and follow me to disgruntled depths!

Imagine you’ve stopped off at the gas station to grab a pack of smokes and are striking up a casual conversation with the attendant when he suddenly hits you with, “Hey, what was the worst thing you’ve ever experienced? Any recent deaths in the family? Any childhood or sexual trauma? No? Haha. Okay, well Kit-Kats are two for $1 if you’re interested.”

How would you respond to some stranger casually prying into the darkest moments of your life? If your knee-jerk reaction is to rip out their trachea and bugle their death song as they fade into the abyss, you might be a veteran. The first time a sniveling college kid asked if I’d ever killed someone, I completely fumbled my response. It was C-minus at best. I regret it every day. I’m better than that. It was my first time, and I just got a little nervous.

As the bloodthirsty, village-burning, baby-killing assassins that we American veterans (apparently) are, our response to this utterly tone-deaf question is important, and it’s our duty to rise to the challenge and represent our community when the time comes. Fortunately, I’ve worked up 10 responses any vet can use when asked the most astoundingly inappropriate question in the history of traumatic events.

Knock ’em dead!

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Marlon Brando as Col. Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Screenshot from YouTube.

HOW TO RESPOND TO “HAVE YOU EVER KILLED SOMEONE?”

1. Become visibly nervous, lean forward, and then whisper, “So you see them too?”

2. “Only the short ones.”

3. Note the color or feature of their shirt. “Only people in [insert their shirt color] … There’s just something about that color …” follow with dead silence and a disconnected gaze.

4. “Yup! Wait, you meant like in the war? Haha. Oh no, I was supply.”

5. “Not on purpose.”

6. Pull out a coin and stare at the individual. Actually, you’re not trying to stare at them, you’re staring into them. Gaze deeply into their very soul and hold the coin out until the tension in the room is palpable, then simply ask, “Heads or tails?” Flip the coin, catch it, and intensely stare at the palm of your hand without letting them see the coin. Shake a little bit for dramatic effect if you want. After several moments suddenly change your expression to light and happy, then inform them that they were correct.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Screenshot from YouTube.

7. Really emphasize the word “people” in this one — “What like people? No, I’ve never killed any people.” Do not elaborate. If they persist, make a loose reference to aliens, something like “We don’t know what they were” will work fine. End with “I’ve already said too much,” and walk away.

8. If they’re young, say, “Yes, and I was one short of unlocking the Chopper Gunner.” (They’ll get it.)

9. “With what?”

10. “I’ll only answer your awkward question if you answer one of mine first.” Then proceed to ask them one of the following:

  • Have you ever heard your parents having sex?
  • In 200 words or more, describe your last shit.
  • What’s the last thing you cried about?
  • Can you meet me in the bathroom and tell me if this rash looks serious? I can’t show you here.

11. Bonus answer perfect for post-pandemic dinner parties: “Only when we were hungry.”


This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.

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There’s one reason the A-10 Warthog is irreplaceable

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Wikimedia Commons


No matter how advanced smart bombs get, and no matter how stealthy and quick an aircraft can become, the A-10 has one factor that guarantees it can never truly be replaced: its gun.

These days, pretty much any warplane can drop guided munitions with pinpoint accuracy, but what makes the A-10 so special is one of the only weapons used by the US Air Force that isn’t precision-guided: the 30 mm GAU-8/A Avenger gun with 1,150 incendiary rounds.

In a recent press release, Air Force Col. Sean McCarthy, the 447th Air Expeditionary Group’s commander, explained in a US Department of Defense release exactly why the A-10 can do missions no other plane can.

McCarthy, who commands 550 airmen operating out of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, revealed that deliberate targeting of ISIS assets in Syria accounts for only about 10% of airstrikes carried out from the base.

The other 90% are dynamic strikes, or strikes where troops on the ground call in for airstrikes. This is where the Warthog shines.

“A troops-in-contact [report] pops up or a target pops up at short notice, and we respond. It generally doesn’t involve an integrated effort with the coalition. It’s just usually a two-ship of A-10s that show up overhead and we conduct our mission,” McCarthy said of the A-10’s operation out of Incirlik.

The A-10 actually operates in the field as an even more precise weapon than even the most advanced smart bombs.

“The No. 1 thing when it comes to strikes is making sure we do as little damage as possible, especially killing civilians. We try very hard to keep that from happening,” McCarthy said.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Armored vehicle post-A-10 close air support. | US Air Force photo

So when there is any reason to believe that civilians may be in the area, the A-10 is the best tool for the job. In a murky situation, where “there’s no way to know whether they’re civilian noncombatants or not, we don’t take the chance” of using a bomb, McCarthy said.

“That’s a type of target we’ll go after with the gun,” he added. “It’s a low-collateral-damage weapon, pinpoint accurate, and we employ high-explosive incendiary rounds so nothing’s walking away from that if they get hit.”

Watch the A-10 rip its 30mm gun with pinpoint accuracy, and hear the legendary ‘BRRRT’ in the video below:

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This is why the UH-1 Huey became a symbol of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War’s icon was arguably the UH-1 helicopter. Officially designated the Iroquois (‘Huey’ is more of a term of endearment), this helicopter has been the most-produced in history, first flying in 1956 — that means it has just over six decades of service with the United States military!


Over 7,000 Hueys were used in Vietnam, and 2,500 were lost during the war.

According to the Naval Institute Guide to World Military Aviation, the UH-1D had the ability to carry up to 16 passengers and crew.

The chopper could also carry just under 3,900 pounds of equipment in the cabin or 5,000 pounds in an external sling. It also could serve as a potent gunship, firing 70mm rockets, M60 machine guns in 7.62mm NATO, and M134 miniguns.

 

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Soldiers of the U.S. Amry 1/7th Cavalry disembark from a Bell UH-1D Huey at LZ X-Ray during the battle of Ia Drang. (U.S. Army photo)

The secret to the Huey’s success was a gas turbine engine that not only was able to perform at higher temperatures and in less-dense air than previous helicopters, but it was also much lighter than previous helicopter engines.

This allowed the Huey to be smaller (48-foot rotor diameter, 57 foot length) and lighter — making it fast (a top speed of 135 miles per hour) and maneuverable. It had a range of 315 miles, giving American troops the ability to strike hard and fast at a distance.

The chopper’s mobility meant that in a one-year tour, the average infantry soldier saw 240 days of combat. For some perspective, in the Pacific Theater during WWII, the average grunt saw 40 days over the nearly four years that conflict lasted.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom flies during an exercise. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

 

Today, versions of the UH-1 are still in service with the Marine Corps (the UH-1Y Venom), the Air Force (UH-1N), and Navy (UH-1N). The Army’s last Huey mission was flown on Dec. 15, 2016. According to an Army release, the helicopter was handed off to the Louisiana State Police a week later.

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Legendary Ace flies his 100th aircraft

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz


A 95-year-old, 29 1/2-year veteran famous for being the single-known ace to achieve victories against both German and Japanese aircraft during WWII and later becoming a stunt pilot for 20th Century Fox film “Tora Tora Tora” in 1969, flew his 100th aircraft above “the birthplace of naval aviation,” July 9.

Retired Cmdr. Dean “Diz” Laird served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, operated in 175 combat and training missions, served on 12 different carriers, flew in the Navy’s first jet squadron, was the first person to land a jet-powered aircraft aboard USS Midway and has the most arrested landings on a straight-deck carrier.

“I want to thank everyone who took part in making this happen,” said Laird. “When I found out that I was going to be able to do this, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”

Laird added that flying his 100th plane wasn’t for an achievement, medal or trophy. He wanted to set this milestone for himself.

Laird flew in the rear seat of a T-34C Turbomentor with Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Johnson, a fleet replacement squadron instructor pilot with the “Flying Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 122.

“I was so excited and honored to fly with a true legend, how many people can say they flew with ‘Diz’ Laird,” said Johnson. “Then he had to make me look bad by being a better pilot at 95 [years old]. It is men like this that paved the way for the rest of us.”

She continued to say that “aviation is a lot different now from what it was, especially when you think about how he is an ace. We train for air-to-air combat our whole career, but very rarely, in this day and age, does that actually happen. It’s phenomenal to have just had a conversation and fly with him. It’s fantastic and an honor.”

She added that flying 100 different aircraft is a tremendous achievement for any pilot. In comparison, Johnson has flown only 15 aircraft in her 12-year career as a pilot.

The 95-year-old legend had some words of advice for younger naval aviators. He said that his “policy has always been that every fighter pilot has two main assets once they’re airborne. One is altitude and the other is speed. Never give up one, without gaining something on the other.”

During the flight Laird and Johnson flew off the coast of San Diego for a little bit of sightseeing followed by conducting a few aileron rolls in a training area before coming in for a landing.

Laird has been recognized on Coronado’s Avenue of Heroes and continues to actively participate in Naval Aviation organizations.

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The F-35 relies on a $400,000 helmet that’s had its own share of problems

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: Lockheed Martin


The F-35 has become notorious for its stratospheric price tag, along with the plane’s host of mechanical and software problems.

The cost of the US’s fifth-generation fighter has already risen to approximately $400 billion with a projected lifetime operating cost of $1.5 trillion. The Marines are still set on launching the F-35 in the near term despite its incomplete software package.

These problems apply to the F-35’s helmet as well. Each F-35 helmet costs over $400,000, the Washington Post reports. And like the F-35, the helmet has had its own run of development setbacks and cost overruns.

Each visor is designed to function as a heads-up display that will work in conjunction with six high resolution cameras embedded in the skin across the F-35. Ideally, during flight the pilot would be able to see through the walls of the jet as images from the cameras are displayed in real time across the visor surface.

“When the helmet’s tuned correctly to the pilot’s eyes, you almost step into this other world where all this information comes in. You can look through the jet’s eyeballs to see the world as the jet sees the world,” Al Norman, an F-35 test pilot, told The Washington Post.

This enhanced situational awareness would allow the pilot to see enemy aircraft and targets on the ground that the sides of the cockpit might otherwise obscure. The visor also displays critical information about speed and altitude.

The soldier who voluntarily became a prisoner in Auschwitz
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But the helmet, like the rest of the F-35, ran into operational problems.

According to testing from the Department of Defense, turbulence and buffeting of the aircraft could cause significant display issues within the helmet.

The report stated that during basic offensive and defensive maneuvers the conditions negatively effected the display, a problem that could have “the greatest impact in scenarios where a pilot was maneuvering to defeat a missile shot.”

In addition, the Post noted that the helmets suffered from night-vision and streaming issues that caused motion sickness among pilots. Fortunately these problems have largely been resolved, although the green glow associated with the night vision is still a persistent issue.

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This article originally appeared at Business Insider Defense Copyright 2015. Follow BI Defense on Twitter.

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